Tony Evers has given up on reaching a consensus with Republicans on new statewide regulations to address the COVID-19 pandemic after the state Supreme Court threw out his statewide “safer at home” order last week.
The Democratic governor told reporters Monday that his administration won’t pursue any further work to produce an emergency rule through an administrative process in which Republicans have oversight authority. That means Wisconsin for the foreseeable future will likely remain a patchwork of county regulations.
Following last week’s Supreme Court ruling, Republicans indicated they want local control instead of new statewide regulations. Before the ruling, they provided no concrete plan for a statewide response.
“I’m not saying this is an end of conversations, but as it relates to the rule-making process, it’s not worth our time,” Evers said. “The Republicans have made it very clear that they don’t believe a statewide approach is the right way to go at this point in time and they also don’t believe any restrictions are advisable at this time.”
The state Department of Health Services removed itself from the emergency rule-making process Monday by revoking its statement of scope for new COVID-19 regulations. Scope statements broadly outline what a new emergency rule could do, and are one of the first steps required in the emergency rule-making process.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, co-chairman of the Legislature’s administrative rules committee, blasted DHS secretary Andrea Palm on Friday for “once again trying to improperly take control of the daily lives of every Wisconsin citizen” and called on DHS to withdraw its scope statement.
The proposed rule was similar to Evers’ “safer at home” order, and would have likely imposed limitations on the number of people in confined spaces, requirements for social distancing, limitations on mass gatherings and safeguards for businesses to protect employees and visitors. It also would have likely reinstated Evers’ multi-phased approach to reopening Wisconsin’s economy.
The path forward for Evers and lawmakers is unclear, although they could still meet to pass legislation for more economic relief. They could also pass bills that could make it clear counties have the authority to impose their own restrictions. Some counties that passed stay-at-home orders following last week’s Supreme Court decision later revoked them due to lack of legal certainty. Dane County has kept its order in place.
In a statement, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t indicate if he’d specifically like to see legislation, but said “while it’s disappointing we’re at this point, we intend to move forward and work with local public health agencies to see if they need additional assistance to address future localized clusters.”
Following DHS’ withdrawal of its scope statement, Nass said he wants a path forward on COVID-19 “without excessive government coercion.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last week he wants the Evers administration to focus on helping schools and universities to reopen in the fall, and addressing potential mass gatherings this summer. He said Evers’ phased reopening approach “is behind us.”
As for Milwaukee’s Democratic National Convention rescheduled for August, Evers said he still wants it to happen, even if it’s virtual, but that he doesn’t added stress on the local public health system.
For now, a patchwork
The Republican rejection of a new statewide rule leaves the patchwork of county regulations in place, at least for now. Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul on Friday issued an opinion declaring local stay-at-home orders legal, although those could still be challenged in court. The Evers administration has provided some guidance for counties on how to approach their own stay-at-home orders.
On Monday, DHS reported 144 new positive COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, for a total of 12,687 cases. Four out of the state’s six criteria to reopen the state under the old “safer at home” order have been satisfied, including downward trajectories over two weeks in both influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 symptoms at emergency rooms.
Not yet satisfied are the criteria that the state have a downward trajectory, over two weeks, of positive tests as a percentage of total daily tests, and a downward trend in COVID-19 cases among health care workers. Last week the state had met five of the six criteria, but has since regressed.
Small business grants
Some small businesses in Wisconsin will soon be eligible for $2,500 cash-assistance grants. Businesses can begin applying in early June. The $75 million program, announced by Evers on Monday, is largely funded by the federal CARES Act.
The funds will be distributed by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. as part of the “We’re All In” initiative to get Wisconsin businesses back on their feet.
The $2,500 grants can only be used by small businesses that have not already received COVID-19 assistance from WEDC and have 20 or fewer full-time-equivalent employees impacted by COVID-19. Acceptable uses for the money include health and safety improvements, wages and salaries, rent, mortgages and inventory. The initiative also includes a $2 million ethnic minority grant program, which will provide grants to ethnically diverse Wisconsin small businesses that suffered losses due to the pandemic.
As part of the program, WEDC also has produced guidelines for businesses to reopen.
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